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Investing in renewable energy sources

Going green just isn't what it used to be. Amid rising fuel costs and climbing consumption, more people are getting involved in environmental issues and concerns in new ways.

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Yes, there are still ardent environmentalists who have a compost pile in the backyard and a solar panel on the roof. But in the larger picture, significant players in the field are starting to offer economic incentives, not ideology, to involve greater numbers in the green campaign. These include government bodies as well as organizations that are dedicated to promoting the use of alternative, renewable sources of energy.

"In the past few years there has been a significant rise in using passive means of energy conservation," says Michael Richarme, at the Arlington, Texas-based analytical research firm Decision Analyst Inc. "Passive conservation is the simple act of reducing energy use by improving home insulation or using a product that consumes less fuel. "That's a definition of green that's been getting a lot of attention lately."

Electricity comes to North American homes over one of three major grids serving the United States and Canada. Coal-burning plants generate more than half of that electric power. Most of the comes from nuclear power plants, natural gas power plants and hydroelectric power sources.

The power brokers
Until recently, utility companies, not consumers, decided the source that lights the way. In the face of that, green power advocates traditionally championed alternative and renewable energy sources that include the sun, the wind, biomass processing and geothermal dynamics.

But the cost of using the alternative sources keeps them well beyond the reach of the average consumer. At the moment, "only 3 percent of the total electricity generated in the United states and Canada is from green energy sources," says Richarme.

Beyond costs, these alternatives also depend on the lay of the land, a state of affairs neither consumers nor producers may control.

Both geothermal and hydroelectric energy need thermal vents and water power to generate current. Solar panels can only thrive where the sun shines often, while wind turbines need a gusty environment. The biomass approach, arguably the most independent of geography, has to do with converting feedstock or trash into combustible gas.

Where can a customer find such operations? "There are several states that have green power availability," says Këri Bolding, spokeswoman for the Center for Resource Solutions, a San Francisco-based industry watchdog. Most states don't.

She says many people tied to local utility companies that use fossil fuels now have the option of buying renewable-energy certificates. These certificates, also known as green tags, represent a designated quantity of electricity generated from a renewable source. They displace the use of coal, nuclear power, oil or gas on regional and national electric grids.

Next: There's no savings -- it's more of an investment in the planet ...
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